Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "Criticizing Critics"

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Tuesday, 5 October, 1999: "Criticising Critics"

Alexander Wright has just sent a lengthy refutation of the exciting and equally lengthy number of protests The Theater Mirror has received at his review of "Torch Song Trilogy" at The Footlight Club. His full text appears below.
His letter also allows me the opportunity to respond publicly with my own observations and responses, which you will find after his own letter.

People have accused me of condoning, approving, or enjoying Mr. Wright's diatribes.
I most emphatically do not.
The policy at The Theater Mirror has been to be as open as possible to letters, critiques, comments, or complaints --- so long as arguments are conducted in the open and with opportunities to respond on all sides. I put up reviews Unread, Uncensored, and Unchanged, and read them later. That should not, does not imply agreement nor approval --- but I tend to make my responses privately. In this case of what I have often thought of as mud-wrestling, some personal reactions must be stated publicly.

First, however, read Mr. Wright's defense of himself:

Subject:
Date: Tuesday, 5 October, 1999 15:19:14 -0700 (PDT)
From: Alexander Wright alxndrwright@yahoo.com

Larry,
This letter is in response to the emotionally charged "outrage" and "venting" my review of "Torch Song Trilogy" provoked. I would first like to thank you for your encouragement and continued support of voicing opinions and observations of local amateur and professional dramatic productions. You provide a very valuable service. And by allowing everyone to participate, regardless of style, it allows for a healthy dichotomy of opinions and viewpoints to be heard--not only the good, but the bad as well. If it would ease the minds of some of your readers and help them sleep better at night, by all means, start a new section titled as such and you may include future reviews I send you in that section.

Let me say, contrary to popular opinion, I have no "vendetta" against community theatre. Also, I have never and will never participate actively in theatre (auditioning, directing, stage managing, etc.). My interests are not concerned with performing or working behind the scenes. I just like to go see it--period. I have been to both amateur and professional productions for many years, attend quite frequently, and will continue to do so in the future. When I have time, I write a review of "what I saw", as you, Larry, have suggested and encouraged theater-goers to do repeatedly.

Along the way I have seen brilliant and inspiring shows as well as some downright lousy and dismal shows. In my opinion, both amateur and professional shows have fallen into either category. I have never stated in any of my reviews that "professional theatre is the only real theatre." That is counter to what I believe. I challenge any of your readers to find and point out which review contains that remark. I subscribe to the belief that anywhere there are performers and an audience, theatre is created, whether or not professionals are involved.

As an example, I have seen some very exciting, admirable, and inspiring amateur tap dance performances on the boardwalk of Atlantic City and on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans that far outshine anything the Broadway production of "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk" had to offer. If some readers don't think I have anything negative to say about professional theatre, take a gander at my review for "Cabaret" and my comments concerning Terri Hatcher. I made quite a critical statement about my inference as to why she was the star of the road show in Boston--and it's not due to pure talent.

Also, I think a handful of your readers get hung up on the negative comments that I make but consciously choose to forget about the positive ones. I do realize that amateur community theatre is an imperfect medium operating on a low budget and that a reviewer could never judge a local production with the same criteria as a professional production. When I see amateur artists fulfilling their maximum potential, I am more than eager to applaud their successful efforts.

If you read my review of Blood Brothers by Arlington Friends of the Drama, there are many glowing comments about several of the performers (e.g. "Arlington Friends have struck a goldmine with three performers--Mr. DeVivo, Ms. Darrow, and particularly Mr. McLaughlin. The title of the show is 'Blood Brothers', so it is quite fitting that the strongest performers are those portraying Eddie and Mickey. Mr. DeVivo and Mr. McLaughlin work seamlessly together and convincingly play children as well as young adults. Both have tremendously capable voices that are pure listening pleasure. While both actors are equally /ompelling, Mr. McLaughlin tends to consistently grab your attention. From his physicality to the growing discontent of his maturing life, Mr. McLaughlin brings a completeness to his character that is rarely seen in the world of community theatre musicals. Ms. Darrow as Linda, childhood friend of the brothers and eventually wife to Mickey, is also an absolute treat to watch. She brings a delightful mischieviousness to her younger life and channels this into a gradual maturity and sense of responsibility in her early adult years. Ms. Darrow perfectly expresses her struggle of having to choose one brother over the other.") and the musical direction (e.g. "The musical direction, under the talented Mr. Shapiro, is of exceptional quality."). If I remember correctly, this troupe is a non-professional volunteer community theatre.

I also had some fine things to say about "Equus" at the Footlight Club last year (e.g. "Ms. Curran Willis also does an excellent job with the final segment of the first act. It is quite vivid and excitingly tense. She effectively uses the complete cast (which remain onstage for the entire production), producing a choral chant at key dramatic moments. With a less experienced hand such efforts would not be nearly as successful."). I recently made positive statements about the ensemble and musical direction of "Company" at the Quannapowitt Players (e.g. "The ensemble works well together and their sound is evenly balanced. That's quite a feat given the complexity inherent in a tricky and demanding Sondheim score. The musical direction (Timothy Evans) is sprinkled with a healthy dose of professionalism."). .

However, when any artist, amateur or professional, falls well short of achieving their potential and expectations, should a reviewer turn his back and ignore it? The time when most people become soft skinned, easily bruised, and overly sensitive arrives when anything negative, even though it may be fully warranted and truthful, is suggested. No one complains about a complement, but toss in any negative statements and the seeds of controversy are blown to the far corners of the universe. Quite frankly, the "slanderous" statements and character assassinations I have been accused of making seem like confessions of true love when compared to what one might overhear during the intermission of many community theatre shows. It is quite an educating and eye-opening experience when one hears ABC community theatre laughing at, bad-mouthing, trashing, and asserting their superiority and skills to XYZ community theatre.

In my reviews I have made public some very critical and observation-based statements supported by "what I saw". Since I am an "outsider", I assume absolutely no risk in making these objective statements. But is that any worse than a theatre "insider" saying the same things behind the back of the director, cast, and crew? I think that is why you do not receive any "reviews", "personal opinions", "observations" or whatever you want to label them, from members of the local theatre community. At least with me, you know what you get up front. If I liked it you'll know it and if I didn't at least you'll know why--with specific examples which support my position.

I would like to challenge experienced community theatre directors/producers to publicly share their honest thoughts about "Torch Song Trilogy". One would think that any director/producer could only possibly benefit and/or profit from the candid adjudication of many of these individuals, some of which have done some very solid and exceptional work at one time or another. I would also like to think that any respectable amateur director/producer would be interested in hearing honest feedback about what his or her peers thought of their production. Unfortunately, Mr. Stark, if you discreetly ask any of these people for an honest "off the record" assessment of "Torch Song", I wouldn't be surprised if it were a somewhat different version than one that would be designated "for publication".

And it's no doubt why, as Ms. Curran Willis pointed out, it's like pulling teeth to get local publications to review greater Boston community theatres. Maybe a local reviewer doesn't want to feel obligated to have to candy coat every single statement he or she makes in order to keep the theatre from belly-aching, whining, crying, and throwing a temper tantrum like a two year old spoiled brat.

When I make a "negative" comment, a suggestion is offered that is one of many possible solutions addressing what might have made that element of the production more interesting or consistent with the overall theme of the show. I don't pull negative comments out of the air without first explaining why I disliked the choice the director or actors made (for example, concerning blocking variety, there were more areas of the Act 2 bed that could have been utilized than just the four corners and dead center). Ms. Pape and Mr./Ms. ShineYou@aol.com both quickly pointed out my "incorrect" and "unfair" assessment of "Torch Song". However, they were quite thoroughly negligent in mentioning a single specific as to why either one thought it was a rousing success. Both might as well have just said, "I liked it", smiled blankly, and left it at that. That's not a summary of the combined ingredients of a successful show, it's a generically watered down personal preference. And my opinion of "Torch Song" was not the only negative one since, as I mentioned in my review, several dissatisfied patrons (not just one or two) walked out before the end of the evening.

Consider that my "negative" comments may point to the areas of a local community theatre that need improvement or a dedication of resources. The reason the set for "Torch Song" was unsatisfactory (I mean, come on, when the actors walked in and out of Arnold's front door, the whole thing was shaking so badly I feared that one of them might get hit as it toppled down!) may have been due to a lack of resources, manpower, and dedication from the members of the Footlight Club. Perhaps one person, with little to no cooperation, had to handle the responsibility for constructing the entire shebang. If that's the case, the members of the Footlight Club have no one but themselves to blame for making the show and Mr. Campbell look bad. But unless a reviewer has knowledge of this deficiency prior to seeing the show, you can not weigh such exceptions when formulating comments on "what you see." I know for a fact that the Footlight Club has the ability to build sturdy, attractive sets--see my positive comments for the "Equus" set (but maybe more attention was paid to the set of "Equus" since it was going into competition--which is an unforgivable excuse to explain the obvious disparity in quality). This is an example of what I mean by not living up to potential and expectations.

When an established and respected community theatre boasts of its accomplishments and prides itself on presenting quality theatre (as a matter of fact, the Footlight Club was voted best community theatre by the readers of the Boston Phoenix), there is an implied contract with the audience that should guarantee it will deliver "what it is selling". This puts the debate into what is considered a "fair game" arena. As attractive as it sounds, it's not always the smartest marketing ploy, since it places the organization in a very vulnerable position and is an open invitation for a higher level of critical evaluation. This also goes for press releases that boldly state the cast is bursting at the seams with "award winning" actors and "the finest actors New England community theatre has to offer". In simple terms, it raises the standard by which the production will be critiqued (and if this production of "Torch Song" is the best that community theatre in Boston has to offer, the state of community theatre is definitively in a shambles).

In the program, Mr. Campbell notably pointed out that he has been directing for the past 15 years. Given this assumed background, he did not produce commensurate results. I have seen first time amateur community theatre directors pull off more difficult material with greater success (and yes, Ms. Pape, the scripts have been three acts and well over 100 pages too). Simply because I didn't like his "Torch Song" doesn't mean that I will never want to see another Paul Campbell production or discourage others from going to see any of his future directorial endeavors. As a matter of fact, I'd be eager to see another work of his, because I would like to think "Torch Song" was in no way representative of his best effort. However, it was entirely unacceptable for a director of his seasoning (15 years!) to lay this kind of "goose egg". My overly critical comments about "Torch Song" were meant to imply that Mr. Campbell seriously fell short of his "advertised resume"--another example of not satisfying expectations.

I'm sure he's a very nice person--he seems well liked by many. My criticism had nothing to do with his personal character whatsoever and any statement accusing me of a "personal" attack is egregiously erroneous. I urge anyone who thinks this was a personal attack on Mr. Campbell to go back, read the review, and point out exactly which statements were "slanderous". In no way do I ever attack his personal character traits or human integrity. If I did, that would be slander. I only criticized his artistic sensibility as a director. Any criticism presented directly addressed his role as the director and was only meant to verbalize my assessment of the kind of job he did directing the production in question--"Torch Song Trilogy". So I don't see how it's even possible to accuse me of "personal" character assassinations, slander and other ludicrous nonsense. Those accusations are merely emanating from bent-out-of-shape feelings, bruised egos, and rampant hysteria.

If Mr. Campbell had been a first time director, I would have adjusted the scale against which he was measured. I assure you, my comments about the direction would have been only mildly negative since one would have to assume that the director does know any better and is still in the stages of early development. I'd be willing to bet if the Footlight Club had a first time director mount this production with the same result as Mr. Campbell, that particular director would be politely dismissed with a handshake and nod and never invited to direct there for a long, long time.

If Ms. Pape believes that community theatre exists as a dog and pony show for amateur actors to "perform in plays that they love and dream about performing in" and that "it is a joy to watch and support one's friends and family as they get a kick out of putting on a show", then by all means, do so! However, the organization should advertise itself as such and circulate press releases stating those concepts and values as the sole impetus for mounting theatrical productions. There is no shame in that. That way friends and family can be the target audience and the unknowing public can itself decide whether or not to pay $15 to attend the production. At least you then know what you're getting into up front. My review of a show that falls into this category would be leagues more lenient than one that pretends to be something it is not.

I will use a more practical example--Pet Brick Productions. I read Mr. Stark's review of their inaugural production "Waiting for Godot", but was unable to attend and review it myself. Curious about this new group, I clicked on the link to their web page and found the following in their mission statement: "As part of the risk we assume in presenting new productions, we will introduce opportunities for younger and minority actors to develop roles that are otherwise unavailable--not for lack of talent nor for loyalty to the text, but for historical reasons." If I were to review a Pet Brick production, I would obviously need to consider this information in composing my evaluation. It would be "off limits" to penalize an actor for being too young or too old for a role because Pet Brick has publicly acknowledged that they provide opportunities for actors, regardless of age. In fact, it's one of the cornerstones of their being.

Here's another scenario: Let's assume that the Footlight Club only had the six actors that were cast in "Torch Song" show up for auditions and that's why a couple of the actors were well out of the age range and type required for the role. Rather than trying to pretend "business as usual", why not use this opportunity as a public forum to address the problem or the lack of interest in auditioning for this show. That forum would be available right here in Theater Mirror. If this scenario were true, the Footlight Club could have taken the approach of acknowledging the low turnout of actors while at the same time insisting that since it is the "Oldest Community Theatre" in the country, the show will go on, even though the casting pool offered less than ideal casting conditions. Maybe then the membership would have pitched in double time to provide stronger support in the other areas of production to help make the show a success.

Or the Footlight Club could have looked in their archives (assuming most theatre organizations maintain such files) of past audition candidates to see if they could round up more potential candidates. Or they could have called other area amateur theatre organizations for lists of even more potential candidates. Perhaps a dialog might have resulted between neighboring community theatres about how to successfully address this problem should another organization be faced with the same dilemma.

While my language and approach may seem overbearing maybe all I am really doing is holding up a mirror to the face of community theatre and allowing it to see its mostly attractive, but sometimes ugly, reflection. And rather than think of myself as a "mean spirited" individual that is trying to "wipe community theatre off the face of the earth", I prefer to think of myself as brutally and unashamedly honest in describing "what I saw" and in describing whether or not a theatre company (professional or amateur) satisfied its potential.
Sincerely,
Alexander Wright

Dear Mr. Wright,
As you must know from our differing reviews, I agree with few of your opinions, and some time ago I cautioned you privately that the Way you say things is often certain to make you a lightning-rod for counter-attacks. I could easily agree to disagree with your views in honorable respect if it weren't for the smug, self-inflated sneer with which you state them.
That and the obvious, wilful ignorance of backstage fact that informs most of your suggested "many possible solutions addressing what might have made that element of the production more interesting or consistent with the overall theme of the show." It is in no way helpful to offer as alternatives what even the lowliest stagehand knows no one in community theater could possibly accomplish.

Take these carping comments about casting, for instance:
"For some incomprehensible reason, he selected an average looking actor (Mr. Greimann) who looks easily thirty (receding hairline and all) to play the role of Alan--an eighteen year old gorgeous and self-assured model."
"Going out on a further limb, Mr. Campbell has cast the role of David--a fifteen year old streetwise hustler--with a young man (Mr. Evans) who has the physical maturity and demeanor of a 25 year old."
"When the dialog of the second act reiterates the point (by each of the three other actors on stage) that Alan is a young, pretty heartthrob, it seems common sense would dictate the necessity of casting that type of actor in the role."
"The third act is built around Arnold's pending adoption of David, so one would expect an actor who could pass for a teenager in the role. Mr. Campbell again throws logic out the door and directly violates the circumstances clearly spelled out in the text."
"Unfortunately she is a little too young and too pretty to bring the much needed weather-worn, put-upon, and haggard dimension to the character.."
"Mr. Berry, as Alan, is way too old to convincingly play seventeen."
"First, like Mr. Berry, she looks too old for her role"

Community theater directors can't expect half a dozen young, talented sixteen-year-olds to audition, willing and capable to play the role for free. The criterion must be "can you play the role convincingly" and there are, there have to be, compromises every step of the way.

Or take these:
"Rubbing salt in the wound, the Footlighters have increased ticket prices from $12 to $15. One would expect a proportional increase in quality and value"
"The Footlight Club should be hanging their heads in shame by charging increased admission for a season opener that isn't even close to performance level."

That's a cheap shot and you know it. Prices were raised for The Season, and doubtless reflect many thing other than the artistic considerations of one production. Considering all that is generously donated, and those things that must be paid for at today's prices, the rise in admissions is probably inevitable. And, considering what the cheapest seats for something like "Titanic The Musical" or "Victor/Victoria" went for, I know where my money would get its best value.

Again:
"The use of black and clear plexiglass, mirrors, chrome and plush dark velvets would have done wonders for spicing up the set and making it more 'hip'.
And you would, Mr. Write, volunteer to reimburse the Quannapowitt treasury for any purchases of such material to satisfy Your opinion of necessary artistic verisimilitude?
It's oh so generous suggestions such as these that make me doubt your saying: "I do
realize that amateur community theatre is an imperfect
medium operating on a low budget and that a reviewer
could never judge a local production with the same
criteria as a professional production."
Though they do indeed make me believe your insistence:
"I have
never and will never participate actively in theatre
(auditioning, directing, stage managing, etc.). My
interests are not concerned with performing or working
behind the scenes. I just like to go see it--period
That ignorance of backstage realities no doubt allows you as well to say:
"Quite frankly, the
"slanderous" statements and character assassinations I
have been accused of making seem like confessions of
true love when compared to what one might overhear
during the intermission of many community theatre
shows"
and
"Unfortunately, Mr. Stark, if you discreetly ask any of
these people for an honest "off the record" assessment
of 'Torch Song', I wouldn't be surprised if it were a
somewhat different version than one that would be
designated 'for publication'."
That is a dirty black Protestant lie, Mr. Wright. One of the longest and most negative responses to your review was written by a community theater director. And the comments I heard, both after that disastrous opening night and a week later when I attended a much more cohesive performance, registered the informed, empathetic concern of fellow practitioners, not the slit-lidded disdain that characterizes your opinions. People who make theater know it can Always be made better, but they also know how damn hard everyone has to work to make it happen at all. Work a show once, and you'll see.

"And my opinion of
"Torch Song" was not the only negative one since, as I
mentioned in my review, several dissatisfied patrons
(not just one or two) walked out before the end of the
evening."
That may well be, though even on that awful opening night I could offer two alternative explanations for those bail-outs:
First, the show was four hours long and final curtain was midnight, in a town ill-equipped for lengthy night-life. After I saw the show the second time, I had to walk home from the Forest Hills subway-station because there were no more trains. (I was given a ride home opening night.)
The other reason is uglier: homophobia.
For a community theater even to contemplate such a forthright and insightful exposition of gay life and difficulties took incredible guts for all concerned, and the Footlight Club ought to be complimented for setting artistic concerns above all others when choosing a play they knew would cost them patrons. Your sweeping aside any consideration for the company's courage in one of its few reviews must have been doubly galling to all concerned.

Then, considering your admitted ignorance of backstage realities, I find it odd that you impute odd motives for people's artistic decisions. Consider:
"I read in a press release that Mr. Berry has won best actor awards at both the ACT local and regional amateur competitions. In the same posting I saw that director Ms. Curran Willis has also participated in several of these competitions. Since this is the Footlight Club's entry to the 1999 competition, I can only surmise this is the reason Mr. Berry was cast in the role."
or
"To begin, this musical is not a very strong or even wise choice for most community theatres (unless it's staged as a concert) and was most likely selected due to the success of the well-received Broadway revival of 1995."
Your habit of reviewing press-releases and programs while insisting you describe "only what I see" and then speculating so egregiously about the why's of these decisions I find puzzling. Tom Berry just might have been a damn good actor who could play the part; the Quannapowitt crew could have decided to do "Company" in order to stretch their members to their artistic limits. Why all the conspiracy-theorizing?

Finally --- for this argument has gone on much too long, and I shouldn't tax readers' patience unduly --- I wonder that you feel:
"While my language and approach may seem overbearing
maybe all I am really doing is holding up a mirror to
the face of community theatre and allowing it to see
its mostly attractive, but sometimes ugly, reflection.
And rather than think of myself as a "mean spirited"
individual that is trying to "wipe community theatre
off the face of the earth", I prefer to think of
myself as brutally and unashamedly honest in
describing "what I saw" and in describing whether or
not a theatre company (professional or amateur)
satisfied its potential."
and
"I have never
stated in any of my reviews that "professional theatre
is the only real theatre." That is counter to what I
believe."
when I can compare this:
"When a director, actors, and designers can take previously produced material that is over 30 years old and breathe new life into it so that we're tricked into thinking it's an original work, the result is pure unadulterated theatrical magic. The newly launched national touring company of Cabaret at the Colonial Theater handsomely accomplishes this daunting task and provides its audience with a delightfully decadent and sinfully rich taste of early 1930's Berlin that guiltily sticks in your mouth long after you've left the theatre."
to this:
"In the stagnant world of community theatre musicals where 'Oklahoma', 'South Pacific', 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum', and 'Jesus Christ Superstar' have become the bland, unimaginative, and rather boring norm, ..."
and this:
"Mr. McLaughlin brings a completeness to his character that is rarely seen in the world of community theatre musicals."
and this:
"Director Ms. Kazin plays mostly by the book, which is fine, especially for a newer musical that has not been bludgeoned to death by community theatre."
and this:
"This is one of the best performances by a supporting actress in community theatre that I have seen in quite a while"

Admittedly, I have seen only one review of a Broadway show from you, but the other quotes do seem to load the dice just a little, do they not?

By all means, continue to send reviews to The Theater Mirror, and I will as is my habit put them up first, and read them later. I will admit, however, that reading them would be a bit more of a pleasure if your style constituted a little less sneer and a little more substance.

Love,
===Anon.


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